With the post-Circuit Breaker reopening entering Phase 2 on Friday (June 19) and as Singaporeans struggle to get back to normal life, there seems to be so much talk in the air about moving forward as a united nation.
A whole series of rah-rah looking-beyond-Covid-19 speeches ended last night (June 20) with DPM Heng Swee Keat delivering his “Emerging Stronger” wrapup. Just three days earlier , Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam did his “A stronger and more cohesive society together” thing. His focus was also on jobs and job security.
I can’t help but recall the lyrics of “Count On Me, Singapore”:
Count on me Singapore
Count on me to give my best and more
You and me, will do our part
Stand together heart to heart
We’re going to show the world what Singapore can be
We can achieve, we can achieve.
Emerging stronger, jobs for everyone. Going forward as a team. #SGUnited. Conversations. Feedback. Consultations.
If all this is not electioneering, then pigs have wings and the Earth is flat. And if you want to be more cutting, you might add: all done with taxpayers’ money. To quote a somewhat angry WhatsApp message sent to me by an ex-journalist colleague: “what we’ve bn getting on TV is a ‘free’ (for PAP) political broadcast @primetime, no such advantage for opposition.”
But this is not the subject of this week’s column. There will be time later for that, as the General Elections get underway, I’m pretty sure.
You would think that, finally, yes, finally, the ruling administration wants to engage everyone in a whole-of-nation, not just whole-of-government, effort to cope with the challenges ahead. And these challenges are huge – massive loss of jobs, struggling or stagnant economies which impact on our economy, protectionism, a world system in turmoil and social disruptions everywhere.
As expected and for the umpteenth time, government leaders have been invoking the spirit of the pioneering generation. Emulate the heroic journey from Third World to First World as we navigate our way together through a Changing World.
There are at least two vehicles being launched to push us along this voyage. One is the National Jobs Council. The other is the Emerging Stronger Task Force. Right ideas but unthinkingly un-inclusive, as with many such “national initiatives” for as long as one can remember. Just as when we start to believe everything is truly going to be inclusive, we get rudely reminded that it may be a pipe dream.
Perhaps it may be the result of having an unchanging Group Think elite in power for 55 years or even longer, if we factor in the years when we were self-governing and part of Malaysia before we achieved Merdeka in 1965. They think they have all the answers. They think they have all the information (including some which are not accessible to even elected Parliamentarians). They say they will tap the views and contributions of all Singaporeans.
Have they? Will they? The Hokien have a phrase: tan ku ku (wait long long).
Just take a glance at the composition of the National Jobs Council. The same set of people are there – cabinet ministers, business bosses, NTUC reps. How are these people going to be able to see things any differently from the way they have been seeing them all these years – years which have ended up with middle-aged Singaporeans (many well-educated) driving cabs, with all due respect to the perfectly respectable job, and with cohorts and cohorts of Poly diploma holders still going to the end of the planet to get a degree instead of taking the alternative paths they have been urged to? What happened to our manpower planning? We need fresh insights. We should make it a default strategy to always listen to and get input from people OUTSIDE the usual closed and tired circles.
And there is the Emerging Stronger Task Force, set up to steer Singapore’s post-pandemic economic future. It immediately came under fire for not being diverse enough.
Tok Xinying, co-founder of environmental group Climate Conversations, had written an open letter to the task force last Monday (June 15), saying that the 17-member group did not include enough women, minorities or representatives from the social sector, Today Online reported. The open letter was signed by representatives from 36 not-for-profit organisations, social enterprises and arts groups, as well as some individuals like NMPs Anthea Ong, Walter Theseira and Yip Pin Xiu.
Co-chair Desmond Lee, Minister for Social and Family Development, replied in a letter to Tok, saying that the task will engage views from all sectors. He explained : “Given the fluid nature of the global Covid-19 situation and the speed of change in the global economy, we kept the EST membership relatively small in order to move nimbly.”
However, Tok said on June 18 that Lee’s response did not address the issue that a change in the EST’s membership is required to address the pain felt by under-represented groups, which is expected to exacerbate in future crises.
Is the government serious about wanting to emerge stronger as a team? Or is it going to be business as usual in a new normal waiting for new fresh perspectives which are not likely to emerge from the same old small and cosy circle of Group Thinkers ?
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.